Thursday, December 9, 2010

Indie Book Review: The Voidhawk

"Take my love, take my land,
Take me where I cannot stand.
I don't care.  I'm still free.
You can't take the sky from me!"

Pardon me while I hum along.  Why I'd have the theme song to Firefly in my head after reading Voidhawk will be readily apparent to anyone who's ever seen the show and read the book. 

In fact, let me really geek this out.  Imagine a Firefly-Spelljammer crossover.  You now have a pretty good idea of how Voidhawk is set.  For those of you who didn't spend an unwholesome amount of time debating the merits of stone dice versus plastic, and who can't tell me why Fireball is a more effective zombie deterrent that Melf's Magic Arrow, let me do a little explaining:

Spelljammer is a not too well known role playing game set on space going sailing ships.  Instead of the Millennium Falcon sweeping through space, think the Black Pearl.  Firefly is probably the best TV show in the history of TV and definitely the best Sci-Fi TV show.  A band of unlikely people crewing a space ship, going from port to port, job to job, getting in interesting scrapes and adventures and becoming a tight knit family as they survive each new peril.   

Now, put those two things together, and you've got Voidhawk: a swashbuckling fantasy of sword and pistol, spell and sail.  This is fantasy in the Star Wars (New Hope) mode, fast, lots of action, not a lot of introspection.  The characters don't get into long deep discussions about the morality of killing the bad guys, they, like Leia, grab a gun and start shooting.  They don't have long conversations about how they feel.  The reader does not have to slog through pages of internal monologue in which the characters debate their place in the universe and the nature of man.

It is, in a word, fun.  The action sequences are especially well done, blending ship to ship combat with hand to hand and magic in a way I've never seen before (and I've read a pretty good collection of fantasy novels over the years.)  A very quick example:  Hordes of zombies are attacking the ship.  The wizard is holding a protective circle around the ship.  The hand to hand specialists will have to get the zombies off the landing struts before the ship can lift off.  The pilot is in charge of a split second lift off.  The Captain and a few of the crew are soaking the ground with oil so that, if they can get the timing right, they can drop the protective circle, have the zombies storm the ship, take off with minimal zombies clinging to the ship, knock the ones that are off, and then drop greek fire and light the ground under the zombies so they all go up in flame.  In one scene we've got high magic, hand to hand, real world tech, flight fighting techniques, and zombies.  Seriously, what more could you possibly want in a book?

Plot, character development, and snappy dialogue.  Hmm... you're pretty picky aren't you?

There is plot coming out the ears of this book.  We call books that read like movies cinematic.  I'd call this book episodic.  It reads like a TV show, and a first season one at that.  We get to know the characters as they go on a series of adventures.  There's not much of an overarching plot, unless you want to consider the introduction of the characters an overarching plot.  However, each of the adventures is a nicely wrapped package of something interesting.  Yes, some of them will feel a bit, familiar, if you've watched Firefly, but just when you start to think that possibly the book is in danger of straying from homage into full out rip-off, it finds its own footing and differentiates itself nicely.

Character development is probably the weakest aspect of this book.  Most of the book is told through the point of view of Captain Dexter Silverhawk, and by the end of the book we know him pretty well.  His First Mate(s) and Arms Master are well fleshed out, too.  The other sevenish (the number of characters changes during the book) are more like character sketches than full characters.  But as a certain TV show from the sixties proved, you can get on pretty well with a few well developed characters, a few less developed characters, and a crew of revolving redshirts.  

Snappy dialogue: let me flat out say it, it's not as good as Firefly, but nothing else is either.  Joss Whedon does dialogue snappier and tighter than anyone else, and he's got an ear for how people speak that's astounding.  Jason Halstead doesn't.  Which doesn't mean the dialogue is bad, though there are moments when the desire to create a distinct style of speech for his characters mucks with the flow of the scene.  One of the reasons that accents and unique grammar structures are hard to pull off is because they trip up the reader.  Watching a TV show the viewer sits back and absorbs words, but a reader has to slog through those words, put them together and try to figure out how they sound and what they mean.  Since Halstead's characters speak in a sort of westernized-pirate patios, it can be even trickier to keep your eyes moving.  Most of the time it's not an issue: the language flows properly and sounds correct for the characters, but every now and again it slips. 

It is very clearly a first novel, and the writing gets better as the book progresses.  Though I haven't started it yet, I anticipate the sequel will be even better yet.  And, though I'd usually rather spend an hour grinding my teeth and wishing I was anywhere else, I'll enjoy the flight I'm taking on Friday because the sequel to this will make great plane reading.

At $15.99 the paperback is probably a bit over priced.  The $6.99 Kindle book price fits better with the length of the book and the quickness of the read.  Either way, if the rogue with a heart of gold and his cast of colorful misfits is your idea of fun reading, this book is for you.

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